BlueDev's PC media player smackdown - Part II

the verdict is in!

Tuesday, January 18, 2005 by BlueDev | Discussion: iTunes

Untitled It is time for part two of BlueDev's incredibly long and drawn out PC media player smackdown! I do feel I should clarify that I am focusing on audio players in this competition. Some of the mentioned entries play video as well, but since I just don't watch videos on my computer (with the exception of an occasional funny clip or while transferring our own), I really don't care about that. So there.

Also, since audio quality will be a large factor in every player's evaluation it is worth noting that testing was made using professional Bose headphones.

Today I will probably be a little more succinct with the entries as I am attempting to cover more ground. So bear with me. These entries are what I refer to as the dark horses: players that are perhaps not as well known as the ones I mentioned previously, but they deserve a good look as well. So here they are, in a bit of a random order, but also based on how well I know the program (ones I don't know as well come first).

CoolPlayer: A free, open source little audio player that has a fair number of fans. I had checked out CoolPlayer a while back and thought it was a pretty solid audio player, but very stripped down (At the request of dabe I decided to take a look at it again). CoolPlayer has a lot of capabilities for such a small file. Freeform skinning, plenty of file types supported (especially with plugins since it is open source), it starts up nice and fast, and is simple to use. The graphic equalizer is nice as well.

  • Freeform skinning
  • Small file that runs very quickly and uses little system resources
  • Good audio codec support
  • Open source (this always earns bonus points with me)
  • No media library management
  • All playlists must be created by the user (as opposed to WMP, iTunes and Winamp that can generate dynamic playlists from your library based on artist/genre/album etc.)
  • Sound quality is while not terrible, is not terrific either. Lacking in clarity in the higher frequencies and depth in the lower frequencies
dbPowerAmp: From Illustrate, the folks who make the dbMusicConverter (one of my favorite little programs) comes dbPowerAmp. Sporting freeform skinning, media library management, wide codec support and a graphic equalizer I was hoping for a great player. Sadly what I got was a program that felt unpolished, ran sluggishly when managing my library, sounded pretty weak and locked my volume control from being adjusted with my hotkeys (even when it wasn't running). As much as I wanted to like this program it was uninstalled after testing.

  • Efficient resource use by only loading the components you need as opposed to everything
  • Wide range of supported codecs (if it is audio dbPowerAmp probably can play it)
  • Freeform skins
  • Installation locked my system from responding to volume control hotkeys. Maybe this isn't a big deal to others, but I hate having to open the volume control on my taskbar when I have nice little keys on the front of my laptop that do it for me. It also would not respond to Fn F5 or F6. This was not limited to when the program was running. I had to uninstall it to restore function
  • Sound quality is muddy and weak, even with excessive equalizer tweaking
  • The media library does not group well according to album, making media library management cumbersome
Quintessential Player: I gave this one a spin also on a recommendation. Free form skinning and lots of plugins are the big draws according to the front page of the site. It looked promising. There are quite a few very nice looking skins available for it, and it ran quite nicely. But media library management fell short as did the other common theme for the day: sound quality. Even with some of the DSP plugins I could not get QCD to sound up to par with some of the other players.

  • Many high quality skins available
  • Good plugin support to extend the capabilities of the player
  • Poor audio quality was QCD's biggest downfall. It would have stayed on my system if it didn't sound so muted an gummy.
  • Media library management was lacking. You can add many files, but the playlist just isn't set up to handle a long playlist and keep it nicely organized.
The Core Media Player: Part of, a pretty expansive team of media codecs/players, The Core Media Player is a solid little player that impressed me enough to stay on the system for a while. Touting good skin and plugin support, sadly I have had troubles accessing those libraries and so cannot give definitive word on how well they work. Good media library management and sound quality work in this player's favor.

  • Good skinning capacity (from the shots I have seen, haven't had a chance to use them myself)
  • Good media library management
  • Good sound quality, but still lacking in the clarity of the high frequencies
  • High resource use. Using the default skin I am hitting nearly 40 megs of RAM while not minimized
  • Sound still lacks some clarity
  • They do cripple the player a bit, wanting you to purchase the pro version (this isn't the only player to do so, and isn't major, but worth mentioning)
WX Musik/Musik Cube: I am going to consider these together as WX Musik was the precursor to Musik Cube. Very similar in both their layout and their features, I actually prefer WX Musik a bit as Musik Cube seems to lose my equalizer settings every time I close it. The layout for both is very similar to that of iTunes, just without the Macish look to it. Media library management is solid and allows for easy access to your different albums, organizing according to Artist>Album. Solid programs, but sound quality is the major downfall here.

  • Clean, efficient layout and library management makes these both easy to work with
  • Open source
  • Poor sound quality, even with equalizer tweaking
  • Resource management issues. Musik Cube only used around 11 megs of RAM when not minimized, but was using an outrageous 60-80% CPU at all times. Bad sign
Apollo 37z: The homepage says "Sound quality is not skinnable" and they weren't kidding. One of the worst looking players I have used (it even ignores Window Blinds!). I could forgive all that in favor of top notch sound quality though. But I just didn't get it. It sounds good, but not as good as it should for basing itself strictly on sound quality. Apollo opens exceedingly slowly if you have a large playlist, and it has no media library management.

  • Sound quality is what Apollo is all about (even though I was non-plussed)
  • Looks very ugly, ignoring even Window Blinds
  • Very poor handling of large playlists
  • No media library management
Jet Audio: Jet Audio is a sleek looking player with some great skins and even the ability to set up your own Jet Cast (shoutcast) internet radio stations (once I had the port forwarding configured on my router, it was pretty easy to do). Sadly, underneath that there just isn't much reason to recommend this player. Sound quality is very sub par, even with all the options for environment and such. Media library management is there, but is cumbersome to set up your albums initially. Once that is done it is great, but it took me too long to set up, so I never did.

  • Very good looking player. Lots of eye candy here
  • Jet Cast is fun (but I was never sure about the legality of it and so never really broadcast)
  • Difficult media library management
  • Poor sound quality, sounding shallow and muddy no matter how I tweaked it
VU Player: A free audio player that supports multiple codecs and doesn't promise anything extra. VU Player is a simple, fast, resource lite player that wins big bonus points thanks to its really good audio quality (once you tweak the eq). It handles large playlists with ease and doesn't have any extra eye candy. Media library management is really nonexistent though, as are any skinning hopes. That said though, I really like this player.

  • Excellent sound quality
  • Low resource use
  • No skinning whatsoever (though at least this will us Window Blinds skins)
  • No media library management
foobar2000: I have to admit up front. I am totally foobiased. I will try to be as objective as possible, but my love of this little player will undoubtedly color my summary. At least you know I am biased. foobar2000 is a small, resource lite audio player. "Out of the box" it supports many audio types, and an available special installer will install plugins that cover just about anything out there. foobar2000 does not support any sort of skinning, but does accept WindowBlinds skins. At first glance foobar is pretty plain to look at, but it handles large playlists flawlessly. And audio quality is what foobar is all about. No media player I have ever heard has both the clarity in the high frequencies or the richness in the low ones that foobar2000 does. Its open component architecture allows for many plugins and this player is incredibly customizable (there is an almost 90 page thread at Neowin about customizing foobar). One of the coolest things is as long as someone has the same plugins as I do, all they have to do is copy the foobar.cfg file to their folder and they can have things set up exactly as I do. There are lots of folks who will work on a particularly nice config and then share it.

  • Amazing audio quality. Second to none in all the players I tested
  • Very resource lite
  • Can handle media library management nicely once the database is set up
  • Extremely customizable
  • Plain and boring to look at (at least until you tweak it, then it can look pretty nice - see examples)
  • Because it is so customizable it can be a little daunting to jump right in and start using
Here are examples of what foobar2000 looks like after a fresh install and what you can do with pretty minimal tweaking, first the default interface and second my current config:

The Final Verdict: So after all this I feel that I must elect a winner. I am afraid I cannot say without hesitation which one is the best though. I am going to have to direct myself at two different groups. First, if all you want is an all purpose audio player that works well, manages your music with minimal effort and sounds good I have to give the nod to Windows Media Player. However, if you aren't afraid to get your hands dirty a bit, play around with things, sacrifice a bit of eye candy, and have the best sounding player out there then I recommend foobar2000 without hesitation. Taking into consideration my personal preferences I would call foobar2000 the overall winner. It is simply an outstanding player, with the best sound quality and customizable to my hearts content.

If you stuck through and actually read this entire thing, just let me take this last line to say thank you.
Reply #1 Tuesday, January 18, 2005 4:53 PM
Nice job BlueDev. Both parts were very informative
Reply #2 Tuesday, January 18, 2005 5:54 PM
Thanks Essencay. I hope they were.
Reply #3 Tuesday, January 18, 2005 6:37 PM
I also enjoyed reading this and the first part. They were both an interesting read. I don't look for the same features as you (I rarely use playlists or any media library features) and was therefore interested in your findings. I've never had a problem with sound quality in QCD, but don't have what I'd call 'great' speakers Thanks for the articles
Reply #4 Tuesday, January 18, 2005 8:14 PM
Media library management is a big deal for me because of the odd way I listen to music. I almost always only listen to full albums. That is all I have on my computer, full albums, so having my music organized according to artist and then album is important.

QCD has a lot going for it, and I have actually tried it about 4 or 5 times. But I am such an audiophile that I just had to go back to foobar2000. Glad you enjoyed it Scarebear and thanks for the suggestion of QCD. I wouldn't have thought to include it otherwise.
Reply #5 Tuesday, January 18, 2005 9:50 PM
NP. I've obviously seen foobar2000 mentioned a lot around the place, but it's not skinnable so I've never tried it. Ever since I discovered Sonique was skinnable I've never used a media player that wasn't skinnable. But I'm a skin junkie like that
Reply #6 Tuesday, January 18, 2005 10:16 PM
I've never used a media player that wasn't skinnable. But I'm a skin junkie like that

I hear you there. That was my biggest holdout on using foobar2000 myself. I had it installed for a while before really using it because I missed having my media player skinned. Now that I have tweaked the interface to look a little better (as in the screenshots) I like it more, but still miss a good skin on my media player now and then.
Reply #7 Wednesday, January 19, 2005 3:19 AM
winamp.. built in support for shoutcast audio and video streams. skin support, good sound quality.. many many plugins. good functions for hiding it out of the way. media library ( decent ), ok playlist. my pick by much that i wont even give any other players a chance.
Reply #8 Wednesday, January 19, 2005 4:21 AM
For audio quality, give iTunes a go. Has excellent decoders, just needs some tweaking EQ wise.

I'm currently using WMP. Due to the skinning, but mainly due to it can mix my DRM and non DRM libraries together without a hitch unlike any of the other players.
Reply #9 Wednesday, January 19, 2005 1:49 PM
my pick by much that i wont even give any other players a chance.

Obviously that is your choice, but I was really impressed with some of the other media players out there. And knowing that Winamp is dead, well, we won't see any new innovation there.

For audio quality, give iTunes a go. Has excellent decoders, just needs some tweaking EQ wise.

It is good, but it doesn't even come close to the audio quality of Apollo 37z, VU Player, and especially foobar2000. Not even close. And the outrageous resource use (comparatively speaking), coupled with the loss in audio quality (and the fact that I don't have an iPod) means there really is no reason for me to use it.

Just a note, as mentioned, this was part II. Part I reviewed Winamp, WMP, iTunes, and Musicmatch Jukebox.
Reply #10 Wednesday, January 19, 2005 1:50 PM
Oh, and the whle Winamp with eMusic bundle is enough to prevent me from supporting it.
Reply #11 Wednesday, January 19, 2005 2:51 PM
Great article, players are one of those things I think it's easy to get "locked-in" to one's tool of choice and forget that the other players are progressing all the while...this article reminded me that foobar has been around a while, so I gave it a whirl and am loving it. Yep, could have done it some time ago, but sometimes we all need a peek/poke in the right direction. Cheers!
Reply #12 Wednesday, January 19, 2005 3:02 PM
I hear you daelyn. For the longest time I got locked into WMP. I wouldn't really consider something else. Now I will try just about any player I find to see what I think. I have really settled into foobar2000, but keep my ears open for new ideas as well. Glad you are enjoying it. Thanks for your comment.
Reply #13 Wednesday, February 2, 2005 2:40 AM
Hey! just so you know, Winamp is not dead. As of 1-28-05 version 5.08 was released. I believe it only fixed some security flaw. From what I've read all of the original developers have left, and (sadly) the program is in the hands of AOL, but this programs ease of use, quick and easy skinning, large user community, and especially the large amount of both visual and sound plug-ins makes it a good contender against these other media players. Just because it looks dead don't count it out.
Reply #14 Wednesday, February 2, 2005 9:15 AM
Hey! just so you know, Winamp is not dead

By dead I mean further innovation and actual development. In that arena, yes, Winamp is pretty much dead, to the lament of millions of us music fans everywhere.

It is a good program, but the future will be ruled by programs that continue to evolve and improve to meet the needs of a demanding digital music market. Sadly, I don't think Winamp will continue to be a powerful player in the future of digital music. So I will continue to seek innovation in other realms. And that is where I see a number of these other audio players making a difference.
Reply #15 Wednesday, February 2, 2005 11:30 PM

With probably the majority of music played on computers being mp3s it's a pretty ham-fisted audio format to worry too much about 'audiophile' qualities in a player.

Gargling will always sound like gargling, no matter the quality of the player, or the speakers....

Reply #16 Thursday, September 21, 2006 6:18 PM
Hey. Nice review, I read both parts! I downloaded the ones caught my attention, mainly the ones with good sound quality, thats my main interest. I just wanted to know exactly how you equalize in there programs. If you could tell me what equalizations you use on VU player and Jet Audio I'd be really greatful. Also if you could tell me your settings on foodbar2000.

Thanks again, Javier
Reply #17 Thursday, September 21, 2006 9:04 PM
Nice Review BlueDev... just wondering what kind of hardware set-up you have on your Sound cards? etc etc... Would be great to know..


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